By John Quinn, EncoreMichigan
Folk stories really are “tales as old as time.” Whether known as fable, parable or midrash, they are cautionary tales that affirm the virtues necessary to maintain social order. They aren’t “kids’ stuff;” the 19th century’s penchant for realism banished fantasy to the nursery with the demeaning misnomer, “fairy tale.” “Beauty and the Beast” is a study in contrasts, beginning with the title, right through to the “happily ever after.”
As imagined in “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,” the Broadway musical on tour and playing at the Fisher Theatre, the contrasts were never more apparent. Beauty and ugliness are given; but the expanded book by Linda Woolverton explores the tension between arrogance and humility, honesty and deceit, fidelity and faithlessness – even light and dark – to weave a complex tapestry of the human spirit.
Unless you’ve been living in the hollow of a tree for two decades, you know “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” appeared on the silver screen as an animated feature. While the visuals were striking, the score was – well – downright enchanting. “Beauty” won Oscars for Best Song and Best Original Score. Composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman’s work was so solid it begged to be staged. But make no mistake: The musical in not a rehash of the film. In concept and design it stands on its own. As for the plot, it is so much a part of the common culture, summary is unnecessary.
The current production boasts strong voices in four principal roles. Those would be sopranos Emily Behny and Julia Louise Hosack as Belle and Mrs. Potts, and baritones Dane Agostinis and Logan Denninghoff as the Beast and Belle’s dastardly suitor, Gaston (Disney’s version of a character introduced to the original story as early as Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film, “La Belle et la Bête,” film buffs).
The successful re-imaging of the original production lies in the reunion of the original artistic team with 15 years more experience to their credit. Director, choreographer and musical supervisor are back, as well as the scenic, lighting, sound and costume designers. Having seen the original touring show, I can say without fear that their evolution is satisfying.
Particularly effective is the current scenic design. Stanley A. Meyer has a multi-layered theme, inviting the audience to look beneath the surface and replacing the “monoblock” of the mid-’90s with a kinetic approach. Scenery flies in and out; set pieces are mounted on rolling platforms – “wagons,” for you show biz types. The fluidity is striking and invokes a hypnotic, dreamlike effect. The over-all contrast continues in the color schemes; reds and yellows for Belle’s village, somber blues, greens and purples for the Beast’s enchanted lair. In the latter scenes, Natasha Katz’s atmospheric lighting is captivating; the operative word is not “scare” but “despair.”
There is a limit to contrast, though. The sophisticated, yet very funny love story is punctuated by out-right buffoonery, as if a contrast in style was necessary to draw in both adults and children. An essential function of folk tales has always been an initiation into the mysteries of adulthood, and a more tempered approach to comedy would satisfy young and old equally.
That being said, this is not a show for the very, very young. It has less to do with subject matter than with the two-and-a-half hour running time. Approaching 9:30 opening night, the balcony was already astir with whines and tears. Education needs a sensible timing. If you have toddlers, go rent the film. You’ll be glad you did.
For tickets and showtimes, visit EncoreMichigan.
John Quinn reviews local theater productions for http://www.EncoreMichigan.com, the state’s most comprehensive resource for news and information about Michigan’s professional theaters. Follow them on Facebook @EncoreMichigan.com.